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Sinking of the Free Enterprise

MS Herald of Free Enterprise was a roll-on roll-off (RORO) ferry which capsized moments after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge on the night of 6 March 1987, killing 193 passengers and crew.

The modern 8 deck car and passenger ferry, owned by Townsend Thoresen, had been designed for rapid loading and unloading on the competitive cross-channel route, and there were no watertight compartments. When the ship left harbour with her bow-door open, the sea immediately flooded the decks, and within minutes she was lying on her side in shallow water.

The immediate cause of the sinking was found to be negligence by the assistant boatswain, asleep in his cabin when he should have been closing the bow-door. But the official inquiry placed more blame on his supervisors and a general culture of poor communication in the ferry company.

Since the disaster, improvements have been made to the design of RORO vessels, with watertight ramps, indicators showing the position of the bow-doors, and the banning of undivided decks.

This incident caused the highest death-count of any peacetime maritime disaster involving a British ship since the sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland in 1914.
Sinking : The ship left its berth in Zeebrugge inner harbour at 18:05 (GMT) with a crew of 80 and carrying 459 passengers, 81 cars, 3 buses and 47 trucks. She passed the outer mole at 18:24 and capsized about four minutes later.

The disaster resulted in the deaths of 193 people. Most of the victims were trapped inside the ship and succumbed to hypothermia because of the frigid (3 °C) water. The rescue efforts of the Belgian Navy limited the death toll.

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